“The House of Mirth” is a novel by Edith Wharton that was first published in the serial format in Scribner’s Magazine in 1905. The story was such a success that sales of the magazine skyrocketed and was published in book format later that same year. It went on to sell 140,000 copies in it’s first year.
The books genre has been argued by critics since it’s release, as it is considered both a genre novel and a social satire or novel of manners. Either way, it’s success catapulted Wharton to bestselling status and cemented her as an established novelist.
The novel centers around the protagonist, Lily Bart and her quest to find a wealthy husband among New York’s upper-crust society. When Lily’s reputation is ruined by the rumor of an affair with a married man, however, her star falls and she is exiled from society. Her gambling debts grow to be too much for her finances and she eventually overdoses on sleeping medication at the end of the novel.
The novel has been adapted several times including stage plays, radio dramas, and several films.
The novel begins in Grand Central Station where a woman named Lily Bart is waiting for a train to a place called Bellomont, the home of Gus and Judy Trenor. Lily runs into a friend named Lawrence Seldon whom she then has tea with. Over tea, the two friends discuss gender roles in society and marriage. Lawrence is not a rich man and his love of collecting American books is hindered by his lack of funds.
As Lily leaves Lawrence’s house, she runs into another acquaintance, Simon Rosedale. Lily does not like Simon as much. In order to keep him from assuming that she and Lawrence are in a romantic relationship she lies and says that she was visiting a dressmaker in Lawrence’s building. Later she realizes that the lie will probably only make Simon suspect something untoward.
Lily boards the train and meets with Percy Gryce a young bachelor who is also going to Bellomont. Gryce is also a book collector, but a much more wealthy one that Lawrence. Lily and Gryce are interrupted by the arrival of Berta Dorset, an annoying gossip who sits with them without being invited.
Once at Bellomont, Lily falls in among the New York social elite who are constantly partying and gambling. Lily tries to gamble but realizes that she has very quickly lost three hundred dollars. Lily does not have as much money as the others so she stops. She thinks back to her childhood with her poor mother and her absentee father. Lily’s only real memory of her father was the day that he came home and declared to her mother that he was bankrupt. Lily’s mother blamed him for financially ruining the family even after he later died. Lily’s mother died as well and Lily’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston took care of her after that. Lily’s childhood left her with an aversion to gambling.
Lily spends the night at the Bellomont and, in the morning is asked by Mrs. Trenor to help her write some dinner cards. While they two write the cards, they gossip about different members of their social class. In particular, they talk about Bertha Dorset who is upset with Mrs. Trenor for the fact that Lawrence Selden was not at the party. Lily admits that she is interested in Percy Gryce because of his wealth and social standing.
Later that day, Selden does come to the Bellomont. Lily finds Selden and Mrs. Dorset talking together alone and suspects that Selden only came to the Bellomont to see Mrs. Dorset. However, Selden admits that he came to see Lily. After church on Sunday morning, Lily and Selden walk together. Selden tells Lily that he thinks that she is interested in Gryce. Gryce has left the Bellomont after Lily canceled plans with him to walk with Selden. It is revealed that Lily has been in love before with a man named Herbert Melson who ended up marrying someone else. Lily confesses that she knows that her thirst for a better social standing will not necessarily bring her happiness. Just as Selden seems about to admit his love for her, Lily realizes that she has to get back to the Bellomont before people begin to wonder where she is.
At the Bellomont, Mrs. Trenor tells Lily that Bertha Dorset spread rumors about Lily’s financial debt and other skeletons in her closet to Gryce. Lily was hoping that she would be able to spend the rest of her visit with Gryce to try and win his heart. Most of the other women at the Bellomont find Gryce distasteful. Lily feels that she is going further into debt staying at the Bellomont so she decides to return to her aunts house. Before leaving, however, Lily goes to the train station to pick up Gus Trenor, Mrs. Trenor’s husband. Knowing that Gus works in Wall Street, Lily asks him to invest some money for her. Lily confesses to Gus that she is interested in Gryce and he attempts to steer her away from the man.
Lily soon begins receiving checks from the money that Gus invested. She begins paying off her debts and feeling superior to the women that have to rely on a man to pay off their debts. At her cousin’s wedding, Lily meets a cousin of Selden’s who tells her that Gryce has been courting a girl named Evie Van Osburgh since they were introduced by Bertha Dorset. Lily realizes that Bertha is trying to keep her from marrying Gryce. Lily returns to her aunt’s house and decides to stay away from the Bellomont for a few months.
That fall, a former maid for Selden, a Mrs. Haffen visits Lily and shows her a collection of partially destroyed letters from Selden’s home. They are love letters from Bertha stemming from an affair between the two. Lily buys the letters from Mrs. Haffen and intends to destroy them, realizing that they could harm Selden if they fell into the wrong hands. But before she can destroy them, Lily realizes that the letters could also be used to blackmail Bertha. She decides to save them for later.
Lily spends a few months at home and takes up philanthropy. In November, Lily is invited to the opera with Simone Rosedale who tells her that he knows about her recent financial success. Lily is initially angry at Gus Trenor for telling people about her investments but later decides to forgive him. But Trenor confronts her, telling her that he thinks that she is using him and that she never spends any time with him. Lily is shocked by this confrontation and slightly scared of Gus’s anger.
Lily speaks with George Dorset and decides to forgive Bertha and get rid of the letters. Simon Rosedale makes a great deal of money over the winter and begins to consider marrying Lily. Lily begins having trouble with her cousin, Grace, both of whom are vying for Mrs. Peniston’s affection. Grace tells Mrs. Peniston about Lily’s gambling debt and makes up a lie about her having an affair with Gus Trenor. Mrs. Peniston becomes angry with Lily.
Lily returns to the Bellomont and takes part in an art show provided by a wealthy woman. During the show, Lily and Selden meet in the garden and Selden kisses Lily. Lily insists that she cannot marry Selden for financial reasons. When they go back into the house, Gus once again finds Lily and harangues her for not spending time with him.
Lily receives a letter from Mrs. Trenor asking to meet with her but when she arrives at the house, Gus reveals that he sent the letter and that his wife is not home. He tells her that Simon Rosedale has been spreading rumors about she and Selden having an affair and that he is infuriated by this because he feels that Lily led him on. Gus rants for a while before ordering Lily to leave.
Meanwhile, Selden’s cousin, Gerty believes that she is in love with him and is jealous over his love for Lily. Selden and a man named Ned Van Alstyne see a figure leaving Gus Trenor’s house in the dark and assume that it is Lily, as they have been told by Gerty that she was there. Selden comes to believe that Lily is having an affair with Gus and is deeply hurt.
Lily confesses her money problems to Mrs. Peniston and that she has begun gambling regularly. Mrs. Peniston is angry, but agrees to pay some of Lily’s debts. Rosedale appears at Lily’s house and proposes to her. Lily does not like Rosedale and asks for some time to make up her mind. Selden leaves on a trip to the Caribbean. Lily receives a note from the Dorsets inviting her on a trip to France and agrees to go with them.
Book two begins with Selden in Monte Carlo. He learns that Lily is soon to arrive in town with the Dorsets after going on a Mediterranean cruise. Selden is told that Bertha only brought Lily on the trip to keep her husband, George distracted while she carries on an affair with Ned Silverton. But Lily’s success with the wealthy and noble people that they have been meeting has made Bertha jealous and now George is beginning to take an interest in her as well.
Selden leaves town to go to Nice, but later returns to see a boat show with Ned. As he is wandering the streets in thought, he sees Bertha walking with Ned. This confirms what he was told about their affair and about Bertha using Lily to distract George. Lily is happy to be traveling and feels distanced from her financial woes, but she soon realizes that she is running low on money. A rumor starts around town that she and George are having an affair. We later learn that Bertha started the rumor in order to get rid of Lily. Lily speaks to George, who has an emotional breakdown when he realizes that his wife is having an affair. He decides to ask Selden to help him get a divorce.
Selden sees Lily at a dinner party for a Duchess and tells her that she needs to leave the Dorsets so that the rumors about her and George will stop. Before she can do anything, Bertha announces to everyone at the party that Lily will not be returning to the Dorset’s yacht, the Sabrina. She then leaves, leaving Lily to deal with the rumors. People assume that the affair was the reason that Bertha kicked Lily out. Selden walks Lily to a cab and takes her to Jack Stepney’s apartment where she can stay for a night.
Six weeks later, Mrs. Peniston dies suddenly. Many of the characters attend the funeral, including Lily who is to receive 10,000 dollars in her will. Lily feels snubbed as Jack Stepney is to receive the bulk of Peniston’s estate. However, Lily realizes that this money will pay off her debt to Gus Trenor. But after she learns that she is not going to have access to the money for a year she realizes that she will be penniless until then.
A rumor goes around that Mrs. Peniston changed her will after she heard that Lily had an affair with George Dorset. Gerty informs her that Bertha’s word will probably be taken over hers, as she is an older woman and more high-ranking in New York society. After she was kicked off of the yacht, Lily went to England for a short while but Selden eventually convinced her to return to America. When she did, however, she discovered that her reputation was destroyed. This is confirmed when she bumps into the Trenors and Simon Rosedale who speak with her awkwardly. Lily’s main goal now is to return to her old social standing.
Lily asks for money from Grace who refuses her and shames her for destroying her reputation and Mrs. Peniston’s reputation by default. Lily is invited to a party for the Gormer’s and is invited with them on a vacation to Alaska. She decides to go, assuming that the New York upper-crust will forget her by the time she returns.
This does work to some degree and Lily begins to slowing climb back up the social ladder. Back in New York, she bumps into George who apologizes to her for the rumor. He tells her that he has been outcast by society, too. He asks her to be his friend, but Lily refuses, worrying that it would look bad. He begs Lily to help him get a divorce because she is the only person that knows about Bertha’s affairs but Lily refuses.
Lily decides to spend the winter in a hotel to relax and work on recouping her finances. She also decides to marry Rosedale. Unfortunately, when she sees him again he tells her that he no longer wants to marry her because of the scandal. But he tells her that he will still be her friend.
Lily realizes that Bertha is spying on her and trying to keep her from climbing back up the social ladder. This is a problem, because Bertha has more resources and money than she does. Lily’s money problems only bring her further into desperation and she realizes that she will lose her house soon. She leaves her hotel to do stay with a woman named Norma Hatch and work as her secretary.
Lily finds herself bored by this job as Mrs. Hatch does not write many letters. Selden visits Lily and she sees that he has changed a great deal. He has become more reckless. He still has feelings for her that he doesn’t know how to deal with. Selden tries to convince her to leave Mrs. Hatch and go to live with Gerty. Later, Lily does decide to leave but does not tell Selden that she took his advice.
Lily moves into a boarding house and takes a job as a milliner, or hat maker. At this point, she is no longer a member of high society and is living among the working class. However, Lily’s new coworkers still see her as a member of wealthy society and ostracize her. Lily begins taking sleeping medication to cope. One day, after taking too much, she becomes confused and gets lost returning home. She bumps into Rosedale who offers to walk her home. The two become friends again.
A few months later, Lily is fired from her job for slacking off. Rosedale offers to lend her money but she refuses him. Lily decides to do something drastic and goes to get Bertha’s love letters before visiting Selden. She breaks down in tears in front of him and tells him what has been happening to her. Selden comforts her. Lily tells him that they will not see each other for a long time and that she has passed up too many opportunities in life. Selden tries to make sense of what her plans are but she will not tell him anything. She tells him that the “old Lily” will forever be with him and drops the packet of letters into Selden’s fire.
Leaving Selden’s house, Lily goes to Bryant Park to rest. She is met by a woman that she helped with her philanthropy named Nettie Struther. Nettie brings Lily to her house where Lily tells her of her success and her new marriage and baby. Lily congratulates her but says that she must leave and promises to return soon.
Once home, Lily begins sorting through her things. A letter is delivered to her from Mrs. Peniston’s estate with her 10,000 dollars. Lily is shocked by the early delivery of the check and begins writing her own checks to pay off her debts to Gus Trenor and others. Even though the money pays off her debt it leaves her penniless again and she realizes that all she has to look forward to is a poor life and eventual old age. Lily decides to take more sleeping medication than her prescription advises so that she can sleep for a long time. However, she overdoses on the medication.
The next day, Selden realizes that he loves Lily and still wants to marry her. He goes to her apartment only to find that Gerty has already found Lily’s body. Distraught, Selden lies his head on Lily’s shoulder. He finds that she wrote a check to Trenor before she died and wonders what it was for. The novel ends with Selden realizing that his own fear kept him from asking Lily to marry him before it was too late.
Lily Bart – the main protagonist of the novel. Lily is a beautiful young woman who desires to find a wealthy man to marry among the New York social elite. Raised in poverty, Lily’s main focus is to find someone to marry who will keep her comfortable and allow her to live a moneyed life.
Lily’s parents died when she was a young girl, and she was raised by her aunt Mrs. Peniston whom she respects and loves. It is clear that when Mrs. Peniston dies suddenly, Lily is very distraught that her last conversation with her aunt was a fight over her gambling. She also vies for affection and attention from her aunt with her cousin, Grace. Despite Lily’s pragmatic approach to marriage, she does have a romantic side and it comes out in her love for Lawrence Selden. Though Selden is not wealthy, she still admits that she loves him and wishes that she could marry him.
Lily is often acted against in the novel by the rumors and gossip of the social elite. Eventually, she ends up being outcast from society and living in a boarding house, working as a hat maker. The devastation of her circumstances haunts Lily so much that she overdoses on sleeping pills in the end of the novel. However, it is not made explicit whether she knows that the overdose will kill her or not.
Lawrence Selden – the hero of the novel. Selden is a young lawyer who is in love with Lily Bart. Selden is not wealthy himself, but is instead distantly related to a wealthy relative which allows him to move within the New York upper-crust while still remaining an outsider. Selden has a more romantic view of life than Lily, believing that love is more important than money. However, he is too fearful of her response to ask her to marry him and thus feels that he is partly guilty of her death at the end of the novel. It is clear that Selden’s love for Lily was pure as he was her only consistent friend throughout the novel. Despite his financial status, he is also lusted after by his cousin, Gerty and apparently formerly had an affair with Bertha.
Bertha Dorset – one of the novel’s main antagonists. Bertha is a pernicious gossip monger who regularly inserts herself into conversations in order to learn rumors to spread about people. She is married, but carries out an affair with Ned Silverton behind her husband’s back. However, Bertha hypocritically assumes that her husband is having an affair with Lily during their time in Monte Carlo. Bertha is jealous of the attention that Lily gets and desperate to get rid of her, despite inviting her on the trip. She announces at a dinner party that Lily is leaving her families yacht and kicks her out without nowhere to go in a foreign country. After this, Bertha continues to destroy Lily’s reputation in any way she can in an effort to further demote her in society.
Gus Trenor – the novel’s other antagonist. Gus is an older man who owns the Bellomont estate that many people in New York’s elite society frequent. Gus agrees to help Lily invest in the stock market because he is attracted to her and assumes that it will make her feel indebted to him. When this fails to happen, Gus begins to lose his temper, childishly accuses Lily of not spending time with him and using him for his help with her investments. Gus has many of these fits over the course of the novel. In the end, Lily manages to pay off her debt to him before she accidentally or intentionally kills herself.
Edith Wharton Biography
Edith Wharton was born in 1862 at Edith Newbold Jones in New York. Born into a wealthy upper class family, the term “keeping up with the Joneses” originated with her family. Educated privately she married Edward Wharton in 1885, a banker who she divorced in 1913.
As a teenager she rejected the standards of the time that expected a woman of her class to marry well and spend her life throwing parties and attending balls. Since she was minimally educated as most women of her social class, she desired more of an education and began to read books from her father’s library as well as those of his friends. Her mother had forbidden her to read novels until after her marriage, and Edith complied.
The first novel she tried to write was when she was eleven years old, and continued to write poetry and fiction in her youth. When she was fifteen years old she sold a translation of a German poem for fifty dollars. Although her father supported her continuing her education, the poem was published under his name because during her time a woman of the upper class only had her name in print at her birth, death, marriage and the births of her children.
At the age of twenty three she married Edward Wharton who was twelve years older and shared her love of travel. But, his health and deep depression grounded them. They spent the rest of their marriage at their estate The Mount, which Edith designed. When his mental state deteriorated past the point of no return, she divorced him a began a relationship with Morton Fullerton, a journalist and as intellectual as she was.
During the first World War, she lived in France and worked with charities to help refugees. Along with her tireless work, she also kept up her work as a writer. She wrote novels, short stories, poetry and reported for the New York Times. At the same time, she kept up an enormous amount of correspondence. Because of this she was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the President of France.
She wrote poetry and books on design and travel. She also wrote criticisms for literature and culture. She also published lots of poetry, eighty-five short stories, seven novellas and fifteen novels. She even wrote a memoir, but she didn’t publish her first novel until she was forty years old.
Having spent her life in the upper class late nineteenth society she wrote about that world. In 1921 she won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Age of Innocence” became the first woman to earn an honorary degree from Yale University. Edith Wharton was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. She was a friend of writers such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad, as well as political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt.
Edith Wharton spoke fluent French, Italian, and German. Many of her books were published in both English and French. She translated the book of poetry, essays, art and musical scores by many well-known artists that she put together as a money raising effort for the war effort, from French into English. Theodore Roosevelt included a two page introduction praising her. “The Book of the Homeless” was published in 1915.
In 1937, while working on a revised edition of her book “The Decoration of Houses” with Odgen Codman, she suffered a heart attack. Eleven weeks later she suffered a fatal stroke. She is buried in the American Protestant section of the Cimetiere des Gonards in Versailles next to her longtime friend, Walter Berry.